Port Elizabeth of Yore: Wicksteed – Engineer of the Van Stadens Water Scheme

Port Elizabeth, like so many South African towns, suffered severe water shortages as it developed rapidly during the 19th century. Given the fact that the supply from the Frames Dam on the Shark River was inadequate, an additional dam had to be built post haste. Despite the urgency of the matter, it still took from took from the 28th June 1865 when the first petition was tabled in Parliament until 1877 id est 12 years later, before the Port Elizabeth Water Supply Act of 1877 was passed.

Given the fact that there was a paucity of suitable engineers in the Cape Colony, the first priority was to obtain one overseas.

This blogs covers the work and life of this respected but frail engineer.

Main picture: John Hamilton Wicksteed

John Gamble, Hydraulic Engineer for the Colony and Consulting Engineer to the P.E. Municipality in the matter of the proposed scheme, decided that it was feasible to bring the water in pipes from a dam on the Van Stadens River. The necessary Water Bill had to be put before Parliament and an engineer had to be appointed before this most urgent work could begin. Hardly had this bill been passed than John Gamble, obtained permission from the Town Council to send to England for a resident engineer. John Hamilton Wicksteed, A.M.lnst.C.E. was selected for the position and arrived in Algoa Bay on 29 December 1877 aboard the vessel “Edinburgh Castle“.

Wicksteed, born in Leeds on 21 January 1851, was the fifth son of the Reverend Charles Wicksteed, B.A. and a nephew of the well-known Waterworks Engineer, Thomas Wicksteed, M.lnst.C.E. When young Wicksteed was three and a half years old, his father moved to Hafod-y-Coed near St Asaph, owing to failing health. As we will see, this health problem would ultimately have severe consequences for Wicksteed later in life. On completion of his education when he was fourteen, he was sent off to the University College School in London. Two years later he was articled to the Engineer, Edward Filliter, M.Ins.C.E., of Leeds, with whom he remained as a pupil and assistant for a period of ten years and by whom he was employed on several water supply and sewerage projects. While thus engaged he was noticed by Mr. Hawksley, a past President of the Institute of Civil Engineers. His good opinion proved invaluable during his ensuing brief career.

It is interesting to read his comments on observing Port Elizabeth for the first time. His opinion was typical of many new arrivals as it was barren & dusty. Wicksteed opined that “Port Elizabeth, I am sorry to say, is rather like a quarry in outward appearance; I had been told so at Cape Town. Nothing more uninviting could be conceived: ugly houses and warehouses, and broad, hot streets creeping up the side of the hill, and not a spot of green anywhere.

On his arrival on the 29 December 1877, and full of enthusiasm, John Hamilton Wicksteed proceeded to the Town Hall, making himself known to the Town Clerk, Wormald, whom he described as “a nice old gentleman with a white beard“, and to the Mayor, H.W. Pearson. A few hours later without having time to acquaint himself with the town, Wicksteed was in the saddle for a rough ride, under a hot sun, to the Nali Waterfall in the Van Stadens River Valley, where he soon set out to work on the necessary surveys for the pipe track. He subsequently drafted and, in consultation with Gamble, prepared the specifications for seven contracts under which the work was to be carried out. His description on his first sight of the Nali waterfall, written in a letter to his mother on 6 January 1878:

‘The point on the Van Staden’s River where we draw our water, thirty miles from here [PE], is just at the head of a beautiful little waterfall, about forty feet high, falling over perpendicular rocks into an exquisitely clear, circular pool, overhung with rocks and ferns – a beautiful little place; but you can’t see anything of it until you get close to it; it’s sunk down in an ugly, parched rocky valley, that looks just as dry and disagreeable as all the others, only it isn’t.

When after three hoursriding on Monday last [31 December 1877] over baking mountains and gorges, we at last came down suddenly on this little oasis, off-saddled, and five minutes after were swimming about in the pool, or sitting on the rocks under the falling water like a shower-bath, with the green ferns dashed by the spray, and dark fishes with golden fins swimming about in the water and when I thought it was my work to bring this beautiful spring all the way from its desert home into the heart of the parching town that we had left gasping for it on the sea-coast two days before, my heart rose within me, and I thought that, if there ever was work worth doing, surely this was it.”

One can only speculate how the frail 26-year-old body of Wicksteed managed to endure the incessant heat and the steep climbs up the mountains and down the gorges surveying the route which the main pipe of 300mms was proposed to transverse. Nothing could have prepared him for the rigors and the hardships.

Finally in 1876 the contracts for the construction of the pipeline – seven in all – were raised for what would become known as the Lower Van Stadens Dam aka Wicksteed’s Dam.

With the contracts awarded, work on the Van Stadens River Waterworks Scheme commenced in1879 under Wicksteed’s personal supervision. He was meticulous in his supervision of the work, the strictness of which sometimes proved trying to the men. Notwithstanding that he possessed an easy, good humoured way of securing loyalty and industry among his motley gangs of labourers.

An example of this once occurred when he himself, working in the unceasing rain to set out the pipe route, scrambling over slippery rocks and plodding through long grass and drenching bush encountered one of the European workmen, lately arrived from the Bay, who announced his intention of going back as such work was not “fit to turn a dog to’. Wicksteed earnestly answered that he was quite right, that men were wanted and not dogs and that if the aggrieved person did not feel himself as good a man as the rest, he had better go home. After mulling on these words for five minutes the man set to work again and accomplished more than any of the other workmen that day.

Mr. Wicksteed spent much of his time at the intake weir in the Van Stadens River Valley and stayed at Lukin’s Camp, during the three-year contract period. Fortunately the camp was near to the weir site. The weir was constructed across the bed of the river, damming up the water to a depth of seven feet. He mentions that he often rode over to a fruit farm some six miles across the hills owned by a London market gardener. This was almost certainly the farm Mountain View near Elands River.

Mr. Wicksteed had many discomforts to endure. Once, after two damp nights, fifty loaves of bread in a bag went mouldy and salt meat was often rotted. On another occasion, a water cart broke a wheel and spilt all its contents when they were working on the pipeline some distance from the river. In another instance, the cook fell asleep and burnt the bottoms out of a kettle and two saucepans! In an account dated 1 September 1880, Mr. Wicksteed mentions that the most difficult portion of the practical execution of the work fell under the second contract. This was tendered for in England without the tenderer having visited the Colony.

The PE Club across from the lake at Trinder Square

Without the use of modern trenching and haulage equipment, all tasks were performed by means of manual labour. Beside the weight and the difficulty of manoeuvring over rocks jutting at all angles, for  the descent the pipes were lashed to sledges and manoeuvred down by labourers, at some places at considerable speed. The path being narrow and the gorge precipitous, it was first feared that many of the pipes might “come to grief’ in the descent and various schemes were suggested to ensure their safety. Amongst these was one of attaching the workers to the ropes by which they manoeuvred the sledges at speed down the slope, with a view to giving them a feeling of personal involvement in the fate of the pipes. Mr. Wicksteed further mentions that special precautions had to be taken to ensure the safety of the work on completion, as there was the danger that large masses of rock would fall from the upper portions of the cliffs onto the exposed pipeline. To avoid such disasters where the pipes could not be laid in naturally sheltered positions, they were deeply recessed into the rocks to protect them from “avalanches‘, but where the pipes were necessarily exposed, all overhanging rocks and loose stones, up to great heights above the pipeline route, were dislodged with dynamite or by mechanical means and brought down before the pipes were placed into position. In this manner hundreds of tons of stone (to say nothing of assortments of snakes and scorpions) were sent down into the gorge. Large gangs of labourers were kept employed on the work for weeks on end. At times the noise was deafening.

When in Port Elizabeth, Mr. Wicksteed lodged for a time at No 29 Pearson Street and breakfast every day at a hotel. He became a member of the Port Elizabeth Club of which he wrote: –

Our Club is the best in South Africa. It is the only institution that makes the town liveable in for single men. Anybody who is anybody belongs to the Club. I dine there as a rule for company. There is a large common dining room table as well as small ones. Dinner costs me four shillings a time.”

In one of his several letters, John Wicksteed mentions that he had called on Miss Virginia Isett, Principal of the Ladies’ College (Collegiate). At weekends he went out to the River Club at Swartkops where he found a “regular clubhouse with beds and private rooms and an excellent table d’hôtel. It is a favourite resort on Saturdays for local merchants. There is a little Jetty in front from which you can take a dive before breakfast.”

The first time Van Stadens River water ran in Market Square, Port Elizabeth was in September 1880. Writing to his father from Commando Kraal near Port Elizabeth on 5 September, Mr. Wicksteed observed:

        We haven’t sent a Jet over the Town Hall as the pipes in the town are not tested to bear the water under pressure, but we have a little run down the pipes quietly into the town Just so that he Mayor might see it before his departure to Cape Town.”

             He added:

‘Testing pipes in town is rather a tedious operation on account of the precaution necessary to avoid flooding property by the bursts which always occur at first with new pipes, no matter what precautions have been taken to test them before laying. In this case we shall have twenty miles of pipes to test in town before the works are brought into operation. The ‘opening day’ will, therefore, certainly not be for a couple of months and very possibly not until towards the end of the year. I am introducing a new system of testing our pipes the usual plan is to turn the water on very gently so as not to strain the pipes in the first instance and try and get the works started with as few casualties as possible, the result of which care is that weak pipes keep bursting and bad joints keep failing, often for years after new works get started.” … “Our Mayor, Mr. Pearson, has recently been returned to Parliament to occupy the seat of John Paterson who was drowned after the sinking of the American.”

At an unofficial opening, four fountains, playing at one time with a jet of 90 to 100 feet, watered dry and dusty Port Elizabeth. “ft must have been a proud day for Mr Wicksteed’, wrote the Herald. The jet was double the height of the Post Office and vanished in a shower of spray. At the official opening which took place during June 1881, one of the visitors, General Vaughan, special correspondent to the Times in Natal, got soaked by the spray of water when the wind changed.

For many of the residents, to have running water in their homes, after years of struggle to obtain clean water, must have brought much joy and wonder.

A tragedy marred the completion of the Van Stadens River Waterworks Scheme. When Wicksteed wrote his last letter to his mother on 11 August 1881 from Humansdorp, he complained of feeling ill and told her that he had resigned from his new appointment as Town Engineer due to overwork. but kept his appointment as Waterworks Engineer and it was evident from the letter that he was suffering from extreme depression.

On 16 August 1881 he was working in his office at the Town Hall and sent a messenger up to lodgings in Cora Terrace to fetch his gladstone bag and overcoat. The lodgings were probably No. 4 with the widow Tibetts, described in the 1881 directory as a boarding housekeeper. When the messenger returned, Mr. Wicksteed left the building and was never seen alive again.

After he had been missing for three days, search parties scoured the district and it was not until following Tuesday, 23 August, that the search party found his body close to the bush in Happy Valley. He had shot himself and the revolver was still gripped in his right hand. It was later established that he must have died on 16 August. Out of respect for the late Mr. Wicksteed the Council did not hold its weekly meeting on the day of the funeral. The Town Hall flag flew at half-mast and among the pall bearers were the Mayor, Mr. Pearson, the Town Clerk, Mr. FO Hutchinson and several Councillors. He was buried in the cemetery at St George’s Park. In writing to Mr. Wicksteed’s father the mayor wrote:

“By the death of your much-lamented son, this Corporation has sustained the loss of one of its ablest, most diligent, and most useful officers; one, moreover, whose name will for all time be associated with one of the greatest and most efficient enterprises ever yet undertaken by a Colonial Municipality.”

Rocks were brought down specially from the Van Stadens River gorge and laid on his grave. His family in England sent a marble tablet suitably inscribed, but the date of death was given as 23 August 1881. In 1883 Wicksteed’s sister published a book which contained all the letters he wrote to his family.

At the date of his death, John Hamilton Wicksteed was only 30 years old.


Lantern Apr 1979:65

Municipal Engineers before 1910 by Harri Mäki

Obituary of John Hamilton Wicksteed


The Streams of Life: The Water Supply of Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage by David Raymer (2008, Port Elizabeth, Express Litho Services)

Memorials of John Hamilton Wicksteed; being Passages from his Journal and Letters (1883, C Green & Son)

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